I spend more time than the average bear pondering the relationship between stories and data. Between the reporting of timely events and the time-taking required to report research findings that capture large patterns and trends. Between protecting the integrity of a news story by sharing identities of those involved and protecting the confidentiality of those who offer their voices to sociological research with no names attached. I’m so enthralled with this issue that I’ve edited a book (coming out this winter) on what news stories about parenting seem to captivate audiences and what new research we ought to be reading to make sure we know how parenting is actually happening in our society.
I am teaching a course this fall that I haven’t taught in awhile — Gender and Society. It’s a course that examines how men’s and women’s experiences may differ in society, along with explanations why these differences come about and how these differences may translate to inequality. This semester my 33 students and I are also investigating how there are a lot of differences within gender categories based on race, class, bodily ability, sexuality, age, and geography. And, as is fitting, we actually succeed at accurately throwing around the term “intersectionality.”
As I prepared this summer for the course by finding readings to share with students, I kept a running list of news stories about anything related to gender and society, with a particular eye toward global stories. The list grew to dozens and dozens of stories. I was overwhelmed with the prospect of choosing news stories to include in my syllabus because the news was always changing, because there were too many stories, and, well, because I wasn’t sure the stories offered enough sociological sophistication to ensure student understanding of the larger patterns that scaffold the individual stories.
To remedy the feeling of being overwhelmed, I determined that a curated and representative list of news stories along with a writing assignment for students to digest them and connect them to course readings that were squarely situated in academic sociological research and theory would be the best path. But I wasn’t satisfied with just that. I also decided to include the essay by sociologist Herbert Gans on the comparisons between sociology and journalism as part of the assignment. The students, then, chose an article, summarized it, researched the background of the article’s writer, noted whether any academic research was cited or applied in the article, connected the stories to course concepts, and summarized key points by Gans about how journalism and sociology differ (different urgency, different use of stories, different amount of time taken, different likelihood to point out individual stories versus patterns, different funding, different networks of social actors, and different audiences). But the best part was that the students were asked to analyze how the journalistic story may already be doing good sociology (and how they knew this), and/or how sociology may be more useful in terms of adding to stories introduced by journalists. In order to do this, the students had to understand how both disciplines operate, which by itself is an important sociological undertaking.
I’ve taught a lot of students and a lot of classes with a myriad of different writing assignments. While I’ve incorporated plenty of assignments that include news stories in past courses, I’ve never assigned this particular paper assignment before. As I read these student papers, I found myself wanting to keep reading them and digesting how they see the utility of better collaboration between journalists and sociologists. I can identify (the very few) places where students still have trouble figuring out that difference, and figuring out that evidence for claims may look different in different types of writing. And that different types of writing stem from different networks, funding sources, values, and goals of different occupational sectors. This is, in no uncertain terms, the most intriguing set of student papers I’ve read.
As I continue to think about the role that journalists and sociologists play in the communication of information in our world (including information communicated by them collaboratively), I recognize that this is not a new topic of inquiry. A recent conversation with my father-in-law, who was getting his PhD in sociology in the mid-1970s, revealed that sociologists were talking about connections between academics and journalists then, too, especially as these connections pertained to the notion of truth-telling in a highly volatile political climate. Sounds familiar.
I think there’s something new going on with the blurring of lines between what counts as “news” and what counts as “research” (and what counts as both, evidenced by social media posts that contain the phrase “According to science…”). It seems especially wise to help students learn where these lines come from, what impact the lines have, and how seemingly disparate groups may be well served to work together to cross the important line of reality versus fiction. The relationship between sociology and journalism is not a new relationship to think about; the pedagogical goal of ensuring students understand why this relationship matters is more important than ever.